Coming back to Canada last week, on the airplane, via THE GLOBE AND MAIL (Canada's National Newspaper), I read about the handful of Canadians killed by fire (both friendly and decidedly unfriendly) in Afghanistan, and, scanning the photos of the deceased, I realized that I knew one of them.
Or knew of him, anyways. Had shared the same track, at least, way back when.
I sat there in disbelief for a few moments. Could it be the same guy I knew as a teenager, the towering sprinter a few years older than us we had so admiringly dubbed 'Zeus', in awe of his size, speed and general invincibility? I didn't want to believe it -- but how many black Canadians named Mark Graham were there? It had to be him, damnit.
I soon learned that it was, in fact, the Mark Graham that had once ruled the Ontario high school track circuit. And I suddenly felt older. More mortal.
As teenagers, us distance runners at the Ontario championships would sometimes stop to watch the sprinters strut their stuff. Distance running and sprinting share as much in common as ballet and target shooting. The track events that we participated in -- the 800 metres, the 1500 metres, the 3000 metres -- emphasized endurance over speed. (Yes, the 800 metres is fast, but it's nothing like a sprint.) Those who ran in the 100, 200 and even the 400 were a breed apart. They moved. They soared. They flat-out fucking flew.
Mark Graham was big. And fast. Almost titanic. I remember lounging on the grass lining the oval track, my own events gratefully completed, my mouth sucking back water, waiting for the sprinters to do what they were built to do.
The sun shone. The sky was blue. Mark Graham took to the track and buzzed on by like a Japanese bullet train. The whoosh of his speed -- I still remember it. Us distance runners looked at each other and shook our heads and wondered what it would be like to fly that fast. Only minutes earlier, we had run that same track, but it was his now, his to mold and dissect with his strength and his power.
And now he's dead.
Killed by American friendly-fire in Afghanistan, so far from the world he grew up in. At one point in time we were both high school students sharing the same track meet, competing in diverging events, only the sun and the sweat and the joy of our bodies linking us together.
I felt very old, reading that newspaper on that plane. Reading about the death of someone my teenage self had known as 'Zeus'. Trying to imagine what you could say to the teenage Mark Graham, that invincible sprinter: "One day you will be killed in a land called Afghanistan, serving your country, helping to rebuild a sick and stricken land." Would he have believed it? Would anyone?
Then, days later, a deranged lunatic shoots up a Montreal college, killing one, wounding dozens. Only two hours away from where I type these words.
There's the temptation to wonder: What's going on here? Is the world hopeless? How can young and decent men and women die such violent, terrible deaths?
I thought of Cambodia, where I lived for over two years, and the madness of its genocide. I thought of Japan, where I lived for four years, and the unrivalled animosity of its solidiers during WWII. The Japanese and the Cambodians are the nicest people you will ever, ever meet -- and yet they, too, have known violence. Have embraced violence. (As have the Germans. And the Rwandans. And that Canadian gunman, weapon in hand, eager to kill. Just because.)
The only comfort, for me, is the realization that each day, covertly, the world over, acts of kindness and grace also find their way into the light. People being civil to one another. People helping one another. People doing good because it is good to do good.
To see violence as an aberration, an anomaly, endemic to certain countries or particular races -- that, for me, is a skewed viewpoint. Violence is a part of our nature, a part of humanity, an offshoot of evolution, perhaps, inevitable and unavoidable. How to contain it, how to divert it, how to not give in to our own lesser natures -- these are the questions that must be considered. We will never eradicate violence; we can only seek to prevent it as best as we can, and attempt to unleash our own, nobler angels as much as possible.
The students at Dawson College began their day of terror the same way we begin all our days. They woke up, pissed, downed some cereal, argued with their parents. ("Whatever, Ma.") Mark Graham woke up, showered, strapped on some guns, made some jokes. Then was killed. Makes no sense. And never will.
Zeus, dead and gone. I remember watching him streak. I remember the sunshine of those days. I remember our youth. We were all so strong and fast and aiming for the finish line, knowing it was close, not realizing how fragile those days were, how arbitrary that line was. Everything we needed was there. Everything was available. We had our shoes and our numbers. The track was ours. There would always be another day, another race, another chance, next year, perhaps, to watch Zeus demolish the competition. Another opportunity to revel in our possibilities.